Monday, September 7, 2009

Carefree on Capri

Back in July I got a call from my friend Hana whom I had befriended while we were both living in Aspen and who now works for Hewlett Packard and leads a very exciting life in London. Hana and I reconnected earlier this summer and quickly determined that it would be great fun to do some traveling together. We zeroed in on a long weekend in late August and started preparing a list of all the places we would like to see, including Sardinia, Greece and Croatia.

Then one day Hana sought the advice of a friend of hers, a well-traveled restaurant critic in London, who told her “Sardinia??? Oh no, you HAVE to go to Capri.” He made a list of where to stay, how to get there, what private beach clubs to go to, restaurants for lunch and dinner and where to people watch over aperitivos.
Capri has always topped my list of places to visit in Italy. It seems that everyone I meet at Castello di Casole has been there and has raved about how glamorous and visually stunning the island is. They have also told me how expensive and insanely crowded it is during the summers. Sharing the costs with a friend and visiting during the very last weekend in August seemed to solve both of those problems, so the decision was made and we booked a room for three nights at the Hotel Capri.

A month later, we met in Florence and caught an early morning, three-hour high-speed train to Naples. A forty-five minute ferry ride later, we arrived at the island I had fantasized about for so many years. The minute I laid eyes on Capri I understood why it has been a destination for the rich and famous for over 2500 years. It is much bigger than I had thought, and even more beautiful than I had imagined. It is almost frightening how steeply its jagged limestone surface colored green with woods and vegetation majestically rises out of the sea. The harbors and coves are dotted with yachts of varying sizes and shapes, some moored there for the entire summer.

We decided to get our bearings in the town of Capri while waiting for our luggage to arrive and realized within seconds of walking out of the hotel that Capri town is the LAST place in the world any sane person would want to be at that time of day. In July and August, hoards of tourists from the cruise liners and ferries pile into the funicular and buses up to the town and converge into a suffocating mob.

We high-tailed it back to the hotel, grabbed our beach bags and took the bus down to Marina Piccola where we discovered a delightful private club called Lo Scoglio della Serene, a smattering of lounge chairs and umbrellas tucked into little nooks and crannies on the flat rocks. We parked ourselves on two chaises and spent the next few hours relaxing in the sun and cooling off with occasional dips in the clear deep blue water. Emperor Augustus had it right when he named this place “Apragopolis” – “the land of sweet idleness.” I couldn’t even muster the energy to open my book.

On the way back to the hotel, we each bought a frilly white linen sundress then showered up and headed out for our first night on the town. Hana’s restaurant critic friend insisted that we have an aperitivo on the terrace at Quisisana, a world-renowned five-star hotel with the best people watching on Capri. The town was much more pleasant during the evening and we could finally see the storefronts of the designer shops lining the narrow, winding lanes. The terrace was packed when we got there but the head waiter Luigi quickly whisked us to a table perfectly situated for people-watching. I ordered the “Princess” - champagne with baby strawberries- and Hana had a "Rude Cosmopolitan" made with tequila, and for several hours we sat there gazing at all of the gorgeous men with scantily-clad supermodels on their arms stroll by. For those few hours we felt like princesses.

The next morning we took a bus up to the little town of Anacapri to buy some gifts and check out Villa St. Michele. This splendid residence was built by a Swedish doctor named Axel Munthe in the late 1890s on the site of the ruins of the St. Michael chapel built around 1000 AD. Several rooms in the villa have been preserved in their original condition and the residence is filled with Roman fragments and other valuable works of art. The Loggia of Sculptures with its marble bust of Tiberius is the biggest attraction but my favorite is the sphinx precariously perched on a ledge overlooking the most incredible views of the sea below.

I neglected to mention that immediately upon landing on the island the day before, Hana had informed me that Capri was famous for its custom-made leather sandals. Being a 5’10” shoe freak, I couldn’t help but notice the vast selection of beautiful, FLAT bejeweled sandals in window after window of the shops lining the streets of Capri town. There was simply no way I was leaving the island without a pair of my own.
So on our way to a private beach club called Fontellina, I stopped in the shop with what I thought were the most attractive sandals and ordered a pair with gold straps and large glistening cut glass stones. The shoes would be made that day with the final fitting at 7PM – just in time for drinks at Quisisana later that evening.
We arrived at Fontellina by descending a long and steep footpath with very slippery stone steps. (Rubber flips are highly recommended!) We set up shop on white, canvas-covered, thick foam mats spread out over a concrete slab that somehow managed to feel both elegant and comfortable. Later that afternoon we sauntered up to the pergola-covered restaurant for lunch in our beach cover-ups and ordered a pitcher of white sangria loaded with mangoes, oranges, lemons and mint at the recommendation of three attractive Italian men with whom I had engaged in a lively discussion during an earlier, rather lengthy dip in the sea. Hana ordered the Linguini Fontellina with crustaceans and I had a grilled whitefish called “dorato” with olive oil and lemon. We enjoyed the breeze and the incredible views until every last drip of sangria and every
morsel of food was gone.

That evening we donned our favorite summer dresses and headed straight to the shoe shop to pick up my sandals. Fortunately they fit perfectly and I kept glancing down at them lovingly throughout the evening. We decided that rather than hoover down all of the olives, crackers and peanuts served with our Princesses at Quisisana, where Tina Turner was sitting just a few tables away, we would have a nice dinner at one of the restaurants with outdoor tables lining the street further down from the designer shops. Sophisticated “edodē” had the most interesting menu, plus the waiters were really nice. We sat in our own candlelit booth and ordered two appetizers- a fresh ricotta salad and a raw crostini platter which included the freshest tuna tartare on a bed of raw potatoes, a tender red shrimp from Sicily, and thinly sliced sea brine. This time we opted for a bottle of Toscos- a light and fruity pinot bianco from Friuli.

The third day was definitely the highlight of the trip. We took the funicular down to Marina Grande where our own private boat manned by 19-year old Captain Roberto was waiting for us. For several hours we puttered around the island, swam through the famous White Grotto and admired the breathtaking beauty all around us. Then Roberto motored us over to the Amalfi Coast to a little harbor called Nerano and we walked off the boat and up the dock to a fabulous open-air restaurant called Lo Scoglio.
Hana’s friend the restaurant critic knew what he was talking about when he recommended Lo Scoglio. The Caprese salad had mozzarella so fresh it must have come right out of the cow. We ordered marinated anchovies and the local fish called “pezzogna” which the waiter recommended we have baked rather than grilled, a side of fried courchettes (zucchini blossoms) and a bottle of the Antinori Cevaro della Sala I had first tasted at Badia di Passignano in Chianti a few weeks prior. I experienced mild heart palpitations when the bill arrived but this lunch really was worth every penny.

Later that evening we reminisced about our long, taxing day at sea over glasses of Rosé in the main Piazza which was considerably less crowded because it was Sunday. We ordered salads at a little trattoria and tumbled into bed. On our last day, we had to catch a ferry in the afternoon so we took a final spin around Anacapri and then fueled up for the train ride back to Florence with a light lunch at a corner table overlooking the sea at Ciro a Mare in Marina Piccola.

My first experience on Capri far exceeded my expectations. Simply, put, it was blissful, and it was so fun to share it with a good friend. I can’t wait to go back again next year, this time in June or September when it’s not so crowded. Maybe I’ll even check out the impressive ruins of Villa Jovis (Villa of Jupiter). Built for Emperor Tiberius of Rome during the 1st-century BC, this massive 59,000 square-foot villa is situated near the famous “Tiberius’ Leap” where, according to local legend, disobedient servants and undesired guests were hurled over the cliff by order of the Emperor. Hmmm. On second thought, maybe I’ll just opt for a little more “sweet idleness” ….

Sunday, August 23, 2009

An Antinori Affair to Remember

It is a rare Saturday during the height of our busy season at Castello di Casole that I wake up feeling caught enough up on work to spend the day exploring. Thankfully yesterday was one of those Saturdays. As I contemplated my options over a steaming cup of Chai tea, I recalled hearing some clients rave about a special place in Tavarnelle owned by the Antinori family where they were able to order Tignanello and other phenomenal Italian wines by the glass. Tavarnelle is only about 30 minutes from Castello di Casole, so I threw on a sundress, grabbed my handbag and hat, and headed out on a long overdue adventure.

Normally I do everything in my power to avoid having to use my GPS system. I have seen GPS devices almost destroy marriages in this country and I have had my own share of annoying experiences. One day I was driving home on the superhighway from Assisi, when suddenly the woman on my Garmin GPS shouted out “Drive 100 meters and take an immediate U-turn!” Right. I ripped the machine out of the cigarette lighter and almost threw it out the window.

Fortunately I still had the GPS because when I got to Tavarnelle, which is in Chianti, I realized I had no idea where I was going. After driving around aimlessly trying to find signs for Badia di Passignano, I almost gave up and turned around. I had no choice but to turn to the GPS and within ten minutes I was parking the car in this delightful hidden hamlet.

According to the website, there are claims that the monastery of Passignano was completed as early as 395, though the monastery archives date back to the year 891. In 1049 Badia passed into the order of a reformed branch of the Benedictines who specialized in winegrowing and forestry. Over time the order became so powerful that it owned a quarter of Tuscany. Then in 1255 the abbey was attacked, burned and razed to the ground by the Florentines. Big surprise. In the 1500s the abbey was an important center for theological, literary and scientific studies. About 100 monks lived there, and it is reported that Galileo taught mathematics there from 1587-1588. Unfortunately the monastic life was suspended and many monastery treasures were lost in 1810 under Napoleon. Another big surprise.

Antinori purchased the vineyards around Badia in 1987. The abbey is still owned by the monks, although Antinori has the use of the cellars. The abbey was closed when I arrived so I strolled around the grounds and took some photos. Then I decided to seek out Osteria di Passignano, the restaurant and enoteca that Allegra Antinori opened in the late 1990s which sells all of the Antinori wines, plus fine wines from all over Italy.

I didn’t really know what I was doing when I poked my head into the enoteca, so I introduced myself as a real estate agent for Castello di Casole and asked if I could taste a few wines. Within minutes, the manager Marcello was guiding me to an ornately set, white-clothed table. As I took in the beautiful restaurant surrounding me, I knew I was in for a treat. Maurizio, the master sommelier, poured me a glass of sparkling wine and I started to peruse the menu and the hefty leather-bound wine list.

I could have gone for the €60 five-course Tasting Menu or the €100 Tasting Menu accompanied by a glass of wine for each course, but I wasn’t that hungry so I opted for the Mollusk and Sea Water Risotto with Basil and Cherry Tomato Pesto. The waiter started me off with an amuse bouche of octopus soup, its salty, savory broth soaking a paper-thin wafer.

He also brought me a little silver platter of beautifully presented homemade crackers, sesame seed breadsticks, focaccia and breads, a refreshing departure from the saltless, flavorless, often slightly stale bread served in most restaurants in Tuscany.

I literally gasped when the waiter presented me with my risotto surrounded by tiny tender mollusks and drips of dark green pesto. Risotto is one of my favorite dishes and I have ordered it in restaurants at least fifty times in my life. I can honestly say that this is the best risotto I have ever tasted. Nestled in the rice, which was cooked to perfection and lightly seasoned with herbs and cheese, were poached cherry tomatoes that melted in my mouth. With each morsel I took a sip of the 2007 Cervaro delle Sala “Antinori” Maurizio had chosen for me, a creamy blend of Chardonnay and Grecchetto (a white grape from Umbria) with a hint of walnuts which Maurizio informed me was rated by Wine Spectator as one of the finest white wines in all of Italy.

I would have been quite happy to call it quits after the risotto. But the next thing I knew, the waiter brought out a silver basket of homemade biscotti and cookies, and a ceramic ladle cradling three homemade dark and white chocolate truffles, one sprouting a trio of dried sage leaves. I ordered an espresso and opened the massive wine list.

For several years Maurizio has been building this list which is now up to 365 labels including sich greats as Solaia, Gaja, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, the best Brunellos and French Bordeaux, and Stag’s Leap in Napa and Col Solade in Washington State (both of which Antinori is part owner with Chateau St. Michelle). The selection is enough to make a wine connoisseur weep. After noting the €500 for a bottle of ’06 Ornellaia Masseto, I was pleased to hear that Maurizio’s focus now is to bring in more wines in the €20-€50 price range.
As I relucantly got up from the table and said my thank yous to Marcello, Maurizio and the incredible waitstaff, I was reminded that there are times in life when it pays to have no expectations. My lunch at Badia di Passignano on a random summer Saturday was an experience I will never forget.

Next time I will be taking a tour of the cellars with Maurizio which normally occur Monday – Saturday at 3:30PM and require a reservation. If you are planning a trip to Tuscany and you love food and wine, lunch or dinner at Osteria di Passignano should be on your itinerary somewhere, somehow. Call Marcello at +39 055 8071278 and let him know I sent you.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Meet My Friend Barbara

I come in contact with a lot of people through my job selling luxury villas at Castello di Casole, which is, incidentally, the best job I have ever had in my life. Almost inevitably during the course of a tour with clients or a conversation with an owner or guest at the estate, the question comes up, “So Jennifer, what is it like living in Italy?”

During my first few months here, I found myself replying with remarks like “Oh, I love my little medieval hilltop town and waking up to the sound of horses neighing and church bells ringing.” Nowadays my responses are more like “I am having the time of my life. But what has really made the difference for me are my friends Anna Lisa, Barbara and Giuseppe, and my new friend Daniela in Florence."

I have moved around quite a bit in my life. I have lived in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Connecticut, Virginia, Washington DC, New York, California, Colorado, and now Italy. In every place, it hasn’t been the house or the school or the job or the scenery that have made it home, it has been my friends. And it is my friends who are making Italy home for me now.

I introduced you to Barbara in a previous blog. Since I wrote that piece, we have become very close. Her story is fascinating. Barbara grew up in an Amish community in Pennsylvania and was one of nine children. She spent most of her childhood helping the family out on the farm, cooking, cleaning, churning butter, and working two jobs in high school so she could put herself through college. She became quite a successful career woman in her twenties, had a beautiful daughter, and got married to Gary. She ended up leaving Gary after after falling madly in love with Tom, who after they became engaged, proceeded to have a heart attack and die while she was in Italy with friends.
Shell-shocked and feeling the need to make big changes in her life, she walked away from a lucrative job in Orlando, several properties in Florida, mani/pedis and Iron Man competitions, and became a first mate on a sailboat in the Carribbean for three months. Then she fulfilled a lifelong dream and came over to Italy for a summer where she met Giuseppe who she now lives with, along with his parents, at their winery called i Selvatici in Chianti.

I recently finished reading a draft of Barbara’s memoirs, which I couldn't put down, and which she is 100% focused on publishing right now. Her story is meant to inspire other women who feel trapped and too afraid to leave their unfulfulled lives for a chance at real happiness. She is sexy and spirited and her enthusiasm for life is boundless. Barbara is a big believer in visualization and often talks about her upcoming book tour and her appearance on Oprah when the book is published. She is constantly reminding me of how important it is to stay positive, and that what we say and think is what we attract in our lives. For these reasons and more, I adore her.

In the short time we have known each other, we have had some really fun experiences together. One afternoon following her language class in Florence, we met for lunch at a wonderful little enoteca called Le Volpe e l'Uva in a tiny piazza near Pitti Palace that my friend Anna Lisa had recommended where the owner Giancarlo brought us glasses of the most delicious Sicilian white wines to accompany our Caprese salads with the sweetest cherry tomatoes ever. Then she took me to a vintage clothing shop where we played dress-up and giggled like schoolgirls.

Afterwards, we huffed and puffed our way up to Piazza Michelangelo and into the San Miniato church with its exquisite Renaissance chapel adorned by a plush ceiling of glazed terra-cotta panels by Luca della Robia. We spent some time taking in the views of our favorite city in the world spread out below us, then chatted over spritzes at the Roberto Cavalli café before she caught the train home to Montevarchi.
I cherish my times with Barbara, and whenever I say goodbye to her, I feel a little sad that I won’t see her again for awhile. I hope her book hits the top of the New York Times bestseller list. When it does, I'll be front and center in that audience on Oprah...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Finding Sanctuary at the Sea

Okay, I’m back. I took a little break from blogging because we have been selling like crazy at Castello di Casole and I haven’t had many opportunities to get out and explore. Plus, I was starting to feel pressure to always write about everything I was doing and I found that it was taking away from the experiences a bit. But lately quite a few people have asked me why haven’t been blogging and I realized that I have kind of missed it. So here I am sitting at the computer once again sharing a story with you.

I have found that people who visit the Tuscan countryside are not always aware that the coast is so close and it doesn’t necessarily occur to them to make the hour and a half drive to the Tyrrhenian Sea. If they do, they often head to swanky Forte dei Marmi, or to the Cinque Terre to do the famous hike to the five villages, both of which are terribly crowded during July and August, dreadfully so on weekends.

It has been blisteringly hot in Tuscany this summer and I had been craving the beach for the past month but I really haven’t wanted to go alone. So a few weeks ago when I was invited by my new friend David, whom I met at a concert in Lucca, to join him for a day at the sea, I jumped at the opportunity. We agreed to meet in Cecina which is about an hour and 15 minute drive from Castello di Casole on the backroads through Volterra. (The highways are to be avoided at all costs on the weekend). I dropped my car off in a parking lot and hopped on the back of David’s motorcycle and we zoomed off to Castiglioncello just 20 kilometers south of Livorno.

Castiglioncello is a sweet little seaside town lined with cute shops selling bathing suits and resortwear. It has the feel of an island cove, sheltered by cliffs and hills that plunge right down to the sea. Back in its heyday Sophia Loren, Federico Fellini and other famous Italians had summer homes in Castligloncello but it eventually became out of fashion and the celebs moved on, and some of their homes are now hotels and restaurants.

After a light lunch in on a terrace in the main piazza we strolled down a shop-lined street to a steep set of stairs leading down to the beach. Below us were a few small, lively resorts with rows of lounge chairs and colorful umbrellas which we bypassed in favor of a quieter stretch of beach (which is made up of small pebbles, not sand). It being a Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised to find no throngs of sun-worshipping tourists, just locals out frolicking in the sea. The crystal clear water was bright blue, refreshingly cool and not too salty.

After a swim and a short rest in the sun, we got back on the motorcycle and drove north to Montenero, a hilltop town overlooking Livorno and the site for a famous pilgrimage site called the Santuario di Montenero. Legend has it that sometime around 1345 a crippled shepherd discovered at the foot of the hill a painting of the Virgin Mary which had been miraculously transported there from an island off the coast. The shepherd had a vision and was driven to carry the image up to the top of the hill. When he arrived at the top he was cured of his illness.
Since then people from all over Italy and other parts of the world have flocked to a little chapel erected there that was later replaced by the famous sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Grace.

Aside from my experience arriving in London on the day of Lady Di’s funeral, this is the biggest shrine I have ever laid eyes on. Room after room is filled with paintings and drawings depicting scenes of people being saved or healed, letters dating back to the 1700s, articles of clothing, medals and other relics that have been offered up as thanks to the Virgin Mary. I could have spent hours reading the stories of the tragedies and struggles these thousands of people faced and how they were saved or healed by the Virgin.

David is from Livorno and he wanted to show me around, so we drove through the city and past the US Naval Academy to the harbor where his friend keeps a boat they will be sailing in a big race around the Amalfi Coast in a few weeks. On the way he explained that Livorno was bombed by the Germans in WWII and unfortunately most of the beautiful, old buildings were destroyed so it is not as visually appealing as other Tuscan cities. Apparently there is a section of town near the harbor with canals much like Venice that we didn’t have time to check out, but hopefully I will get there on a return trip.

That evening we enjoyed an apertivo at Dai Dai, a fun little bar overlooking the cove of Castiglioncello. I ordered “spritz”- a bright orange, refreshing blend of Aperol, white wine and sparkling water. Then we headed downhill to a restaurant owned by a friend of David’s that sits on a pier in a small harbor. As the sun was setting to our right in dazzling pink , the moon shimmering over the harbor was rising to our left-a truly magical setting.

The meal was one of the best I have had in Tuscany. We started with a glass of Prosecco and a small plate of raw crostini al mare- a single shrimp and a single scampi (which is a slightly larger shrimp) a bright red incredibly flavorful mussel, a clam and a slice of sardine with a touch of olive oil and sea salt. The next course was my favorite- black squid ink pasta with mussels and clams swimming in a light broth that tasted like it came right out of the sea. I savored every bite and it paired perfectly with a light, crisp white wine from Friuli in northern Italy. Next up was a tender, perfectly cooked white fish with lightly steamed vegetables. The grande finale- a fluffy Ricotta mousse with perfectly ripe strawberries. (Unfortunately I forgot to pick up a card from the restaurant and David is off sailing for two weeks so I can’t give you the name. I am sure if you ask for the restaurant on the pier owned by Alberto’s family, someone will know what you are talking about…)

It was a long drive back to Casole d’Elsa, and when I arrived home I fell into bed with a big smile on my face. I must at admit that spending the day with a 6’3” extremely attractive Italian man might have had an impact on the rather positive light in which I had perceived my surroundings. Nonetheless, Castiglioncello is a delightful little town to visit on a hot summer day and the Sanctuary at Montenero, I must say, is a must-see.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Baaaaaack to the Farm

One evening last week I had dinner in the home of a Sardinian sheep farming family. I can’t believe I just wrote that. But it’s true. I had heard about this family and the incredible cheeses they make from my friend Vittorio Cambio who owns a beautiful property called Villa Ferraia near Monticiano about 45 minutes south of Castello di Casole. I asked Vittorio if he would bring me along the next time he visited the family to which he replied “Why should I?? Then you will write about it on your blog and everyone will know about it!!”

I had all but forgotten about this family and their cheeses when out of the blue Vittorio called and asked if I would join him for dinner with his friends at the sheep farm, and he also told me I could bring a few people as well. Coincidentally, a wonderful couple, Gayle and Paul, who are waiting for their farmhome to be built at Castello di Casole were staying at our private guesthouse. So we all jumped in the car with our umbrellas on a rainy Sunday evening and set off towards Radicondoli where Vittorio guided us down a nondescript gravel road to the sheep farm of Giovanni Porcu.

As we arrived, the sheep (pecori) were excitedly queuing up for a quick meal and milking in the barn. When Giovanni gave them the signal, a group of about 30 sheep rushed through a little opening between the barn and the milking area and lined up one next to the other along a long trough filled with food until every open space was claimed. Tubes with powerful suction hoses were attached to the teats of the sheep and while they were being milked they chomped away at their dinners. As we were watching this fascinating spectacle, Giovanni’s farmhand passed into my arms a baby sheep with the softest white fur that had been born the day before. I could have held onto that little bleating bundle of joy for hours.

Vittorio led us through a room where the milk was being directed into a large steel container and into the cheese-making facility. About twenty big rounds of bright white cheese were bobbing in a large vat of water to remove the salt they had been curing in. Others were still packed in salt in big plastic containers. As we proceeded to a particular closed door, Vittorio warned us that the aroma we were about to encounter was not unlike that of bad foot odor. We headed into a room loaded with trays cheeses of various shapes and shades from creamy white to dark yellow, all covered in mold. Some had been made with rennet (expelled from the lining of baby sheep stomachs after their first suckling- you might not have wanted to know that). Others were made with a vegetable rennet which is a slower process dating back to the times of Dante but well worth the wait.

Then Vittorio opened another door that led into a little shop where the family sells their cheeses to the public. He chose three cheeses for us to sample, starting with the youngest which had been aged for three months with a smooth, slightly nutty flavor, to the oldest called Tallegio which was covered in a moldy rind and quite potent. All three were delicious and a great precursor to the incredible dinner awaiting us.

When we entered the Porcu family farmhome, Giovanni’s wife Giovanna was rolling out dough for the appetizers and dessert stuffed with different blends of pecorino cheeses and deep fried into puffy, mouth-wateringly delicacies. A different type of dough was rolled out and fed into a pasta maker for the raviolis stuffed with fresh ricotta and herbs. While we watched Giovanna and her daughters prepare dinner, Giovanni brought out a big bowl-shaped hunk of the freshest, fluffiest, creamiest ricotta I have ever tasted. I had several large spoonfuls and had to stop myself from eating the whole thing. Plates of steaming stuffed treats then a huge roasted leg of lamb circled the table. Vittorio served as our translator as we shared stories of our lives over the wonderful meal and big pitchers of Rosso di Montepulciano.

As we bade farewell to our new Sardinian friends and stepped out into the rainy black night, Gayle, Paul and I were a little overcome by the extraordinary experience we had just shared. It is one that we will never forget, and it’s yet another reason why so many of us are so drawn to this little stretch of Italian countryside.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Friends and Great Wines

When I first arrived in Tuscany back in mid-February, my associate and good friend Georgia suggested that I meet her friends Barbara and Guiseppe at Giuseppe’s family winery in Chianti. At the time, the two were in the States hosting dinners and wine tastings in the homes of their clients, a clever way to escape the wet winters in Tuscany.

When they returned I was delighted to receive an email from Barbara inviting me to spend an afternoon with them at their winery near Montevarchi. On the day of my visit I took the GPS system out of the box it had been sitting in for two weeks and punched in the address of the winery. There are hundreds of wineries in Chianti, so as I set off for the verdant hills and winding roads of Chianti, I have to say that I wasn’t focusing on the wine so much as the opportunity to make new friends.

When I arrived at
I Selvatici and entered the tasting room, Barbara and Giuseppe greeted me as though we had known each other for years. I had been there only a few minutes when Barbara said “Wait, there’s a problem here! You’re not holding a glass of wine.” She led me to a table neatly set with three wine glasses lined up at each plate and when Giuseppe brought over a plate of various cheeses, I knew I was in for a treat.

Giuseppe Sala is a third-generation winemaker and the only one in his family to speak English. His grandfather bought their 30 acres of land and the 15th-century villa complete with its own chapel and wine cellar in the 1950s. It was Giuseppe’s idea to build the light and spacious tasting room where he hosts private tastings and events for his clients. Relative to other larger commercial wineries in Tuscany with extravagantly landscaped grounds, guided tours, lavish lunches and fully stocked shops selling their wines, olive oil and other products, there is a noticeable lack of pomp and circumstance at I Selvatici. It is all about the wine, and for good reason.

The first vintage Giuseppe poured was a 2007 Chianti, a blend of Sangiovese and another local grape called Canaiolo. As we sipped away Giuseppe and Barbara shared with me some very interesting facts about Chianti. Here are a few I jotted down:

- Chianti is actually a region, like Bourdeaux, not a grape.
- In order for a bottle to earn the right to wear the pink neck label, the grapes must have been grown and pressed in Chianti without any irrigation and the blend must be at least 75% Sangiovese.
- Chianti “Reserve” simply means the wine has been aged for three years.
- Chianti Classico is a region within Chianti, not a special reserve wine. Chianti Classicos are distinguished by a black rooster on their pink neck labels.
- There four other regions in Chianti are- Colle Arentini (around Arezzo) Colle Ferentini (around Florence), Colle Senese (around Siena) and Colle Pisani (around Pisa).

While Giuseppe began to pour the second tasting, a 1997 Super Tuscan called Cardisco (which means Sangiovese in Italian) comprised of100% Sangiovese into our glasses, his eyes lit up and he became quite animated. This was clearly a wine he as very proud of and as I swirled and sniffed the liquid then took my first sip, I could easily see why. Usually Sangioveses are a bit too harsh and acidic for my personal taste, but this wine was surprisingly smooth, especially when paired with a hard aged cheese like the Parmesean Reggiono we were enjoying it with.

I had always assumed that a wine made from 100% of the same grape was easier to make than a blend, but Giuseppe was quick to point out that blends are actually easier because you can keep adding a bit of this, a bit of that, until you get exactly what you are looking for. Whereas with a 100% Sangiovese, it’s pretty much all up to Mother Nature and you get what you get each harvest season. The real art for Giuseppe is determining how much time each year’s vintage should be aged in French Oak barrels after it ferments before it is transferred to steel tanks. Obviously he is very good at this part of the process because Cardisco has consistently earned a 93 rating from Wine Spectator and goes for about $200 for a bottle at restaurants in the U.S.

After a lunch that included bruschetta with some of the sweetest cherry tomatoes I have ever tasted, Giuseppe poured the grande finale- a 1999 Vin Santo. I have had my fair share of this traditional Tuscan dessert wine, which is usually served with biscotti for dipping. You wouldn’t want even a speck of biscotti, however, to fall into the sweet, sultry nectar that Giuseppe has created by blending Malvasia, Treppiano, Columbaio and a touch of Sangiovese which helps give it that rich amber color. There is no wonder that Wine Spectator has given this Vin Santo a 98 rating.

As I was savoring every sip, Giuseppe told me that Vin Santo is actually aged in an attic, as opposed to a cellar, where the heat and humidity work their magic. Each rib on the barrels is made of a different wood- chestnut, oak, juniper, Tuscan Oak, and another local wood called gelso. One day a few years ago, Giuseppe was rummaging through the attic in his home at the winery and discovered two barrels of Vin Santo that had been aging there for fifty years. He opened the cork fully expecting the wine to have turned, but instead he was greeted with a pleasant scent was so powerful that he knew something very special was inside. Three quarters of the barrels were sediment, and he and his father cut the remaining quarter which was a thick, heavy syrup, with Malvasia until it achieved the consistency of honey which they poured magic into small 3 oz. bottles which they sell for €600. Giuseppe let me taste a smidgen of this divine magic in a glass and there are simply not words to describe the exquisite taste and texture that lingered on my palate the whole drive home.

I am grateful to have become friends with Barbara and Giuseppe. While I enjoyed their wines immensely, I enjoyed their company even more. They are very special people and their stories, some of which I will share in future postings, are fascinating. Something tells me we are going to have many fun adventures together while I am living in Tuscany…

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cashmere in Chianti- Who Knew?

Last weekend had an incredible “this is why I live here!” experience that I have to share with you. My friend Joyce Falcone, of The Italian Concierge, who has a knack for finding really special, off-the-beaten-path places for her touring business, had told me to stop by a place called Chianti Cashmere in Radda in Chianti. All her email said is “American expat living in Radda for 30 years.” It wasn’t much to go on, but I had a free Saturday afternoon, the weather was lovely, and Radda is only a 40 minute drive from Castello di Casole so I jumped in the car, filled with excitement about yet another Tuscan adventure.

The scenery is such a feast for the eyes in Chianti that I could have spent the whole afternoon just driving around, but I was on a mission so I followed the directions which led me through Radda, down the hill and turning left at the fork onto SP72. Just 600 meters on the left is a little sign of a goat below a nondescript mailbox. The drive descends through a quiet forest where I sighted little groups of long-haired black and white goats grazing on the hillsides. At the end of the drive I pulled up to a little building and heard voices so I entered the shop.

The owner of Chianti Cashmere, Nora Kravis, was just in the middle of explaining her cashmere operation to some visitors and I was able to learn that Nora has 300 goats on her farm. She combs the Cashmere every spring (as opposed to shearing which leaves the poor goats with no protection from the elements) and then sends the fiber to northern Italy to have it de-haired and spun into yarn, which takes an entire year, believe it or not.

I was surprised to learn that in order to knit just one large scarf you need wool from three goats. The prices, which are quite reasonable given the extremely high quality, depend on how finely woven the yarn is. Her handmade scarves, wraps and throws are exquisite. Each one is a work of art in all natural colors (she uses no artificial dyes) and so incredibly soft. Nora also has a line of sumptuous goat’s milk soaps and body products, including a hand cream that I am now addicted to.

Just talking to Nora and hearing her story is worth the trip. She clearly loves what she does and she never tires of sharing her experiences with other people. Originally from Long Island, Nora landed in Radda in 1972 and was out exercising horses one day when she discovered a dilapidated little stone farmhouse nestled into the side of a steep, rocky hill. The views were magical and it felt like home so Nora restored the farmhouse so over the next ten years, during which she attended veterinary school in Pisa. Over time her family grew to include several dogs, five horses, two sheep, hens, a rooster, and two goats, Bella and Bestia.

Those two goats have grown into a group of genetically selected Cashmere goats, with wide-spread origins and wonderful names like Houdini, Igloo, Chatterbox, Mr. Magoo and Ice Cream. I found out from Nora that her little goat herd has become recognized nationally and in other countries of the EEC. Not only is it the first privately owned Cashmere goat herd in Italy, it is the genetic data base and source for reproductive animals across the country.

Nora’s farm is actually an agriturismo, (a B&B/farm combo) so you can stay there for a few nights and comb the goats or participate in whatever else is going on at the farm and explore the surrounding towns including Panzano, Greve and the adorable little hamlet of Volpaia. She also offers lunches featuring vegetables from her organic garden and tastings of goat’s milk cheeses- you just need to schedule this a few weeks in advance.

Chianti Cashmere is a special place owned and operated by an even more special woman, and if you happen to be in Chianti, it’s a “must see.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A New Friend and a New Appreciation for Buonconvento

Last Thursday I drove south to Buonconvento, about 45 minutes from Castello di Casole. I had driven by Buonconvento several times and I had always looked curiously at that imposing stone wall wondering what lies behind it. But I was always rushing to get somewhere else and, quite frankly, it seemed a bit ho-hum compared with all of the intriguing castles, abbeys and churches dotting the hills of the beautiful valley south of Siena called the Val d’Orcia. This time, however, I was on my way to meet a friend of a friend I had connected with via email a few days earlier.

So when Anna Lisa Tempestini led me to the wall, through the gate and down a few lanes, I was pleasantly surprised to discover an adorable little village buzzing with activity. We stopped for an espresso and poked our heads into a few nice clothing and leather shops and everywhere we went the townspeople greeted Anna Lisa warmly. She pointed out her favorite restaurant, Osteria di Mario, and we agreed that during a future visit we would enjoy a long, leisurely lunch on the patio.

Anna Lisa and her husband and children live in an old monastery complete with its own centuries-old chapel and a breathtaking view of Montalcino. She has her own little vineyard where she grows mainly Sangiovese grapes for her boutique wine called Martin del Nero, producing only about 4,000 bottles of each year. Anna Lisa has built a business around the things she loves most- wine, food, and introducing people to the treasures of the Val d’Orcia. The joy she finds in her work comes through in her blog, which she keeps for clients and friends.

She and her husband have a deep appreciation for the origins and history of their home. In the cellar there is an inscription that was chiseled by the builder, Martin del Nero, in 1573 in which he asks god to bless the part of the cellar where the wine is stored and expresses his hope that he has done a good job building the monastery. They chose to honor this humble man with a fondness for wine who created their beautiful home by naming Anna Lisa’s wine after him.

Anna Lisa also has a passion for cooking and picks organic vegetables from a neighbor’s garden whenever she wants so lunch was quite a treat. We started with a light chicken salad and layers of eggplant and tomatoes that had been slowly cooking on the stovetop, followed by homemade ricotta cheese with a delicious wholegrain bread we dipped in olive oil pressed from olives grown on her land. We shared stories over lunch and a few glasses of a light and fruity Laura Aschero Vermentino from the Ligurian coast. Then we made a brief stop at the Altesino winery where Anna Lisa's latest release of Martin del Nero is finishing it fermentation in a big stainless steel tank and paused for a photo on their lovely grounds.

After lunch, I retraced our steps back to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The trip was worth it for the drive alone which winds around vineyard-speckled, tree-topped hills that seem to bubble right out of the land. The stunning Benedictine abbey perched atop a cliff was founded in 1319 by three Senese noblemen who apparently decided to give up their wealth in favor of living according to the rule of St. Benedict. It was built from 1393 to 1526 and you enter the grounds over a drawbridge. The gothic church is wondrous but the highlight is the series of 36 beautifully preserved frescoes by Luca Signorelli and Sodoma depicting the life of St. Benedict that decorate the four walls of the main cloisters. The abbey still produces honey and distilled herbal spirits made according to ancient recipes that are sold in a little shop. Monks live on the premises and they hold masses with Gregorian chanting daily. The best view of the abbey is from the town of Chiusura where there is also a great restaurant Anna Lisa recommended called Il Pozzo di Chiusura.

I think a perfect daytrip from Castello di Casole would start with a visit to Buonconvento in the late morning while the museum and shops are open, followed by a leisurely lunch at Osteria di Mario. Then a drive through the countryside, maybe stopping in medieval San Quirico d’Orcia and Bagno Vignoni and with its 11th-century castle famous for its thermal springs frequented by Romans, ending up at the Abbey at around 4pm or 5pm. If you really want the full experience, evening mass and chanting starts at 6:15pm.